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Electrode being inserted into the brain

The hypothalamus; the target site for the procedure
A "pacemaker" for the human brain might be on the horizon

A 50 year old man, dangerously obese, goes to the hospital for experimental brain surgery to suppress his appetite.  A small piece of his skull is removed, and an electrical probe inserted deep into his brain tissue. It reaches his hypothalamus and current is switched on. Suddenly the patient -- awake through the procedure -- begins to speak uncontrollably about events in his past, events he had long forgotten. He remembers a day's walk in the park 30 years ago, complete with what people were wearing, all in vivid color.  He sees them speaking to him, every motion they made. The intensity and level of detail of the memories is frightening.

The scene may read like the script of a bad science fiction flick but it comes from an unidentified patient at Ontario's Toronto Western Hospital.  No one was more astonished than the man's doctors, who began to experiment further on him.  Over the next few weeks, they continued testing. His ability to both learn and remember was substantially increased when the electrodes were turned on. Continuous stimulation also had a residual effect -- after the electrodes were off, there was still a slight benefit.

Professor Andreas Lozano, of the Neurosurgery Department of Toronto Western, led the research. He says the electrodes function like "turning up the volume" on the brain's memory circuits. "As we turned the current up, we first drove his memory circuits and improved his learning. As we increased the intensity, we got spontaneous memories of discrete events. At a certain intensity, he would slash to the [park scene]. When the intensity was increased further, he got more detail but, when the current was turned off, it rapidly decayed."

Lozano's previous research included stimulating certain portions of the brain to curb appetite. His research in that field earned him more than a few headlines in 2006.

The results were so successful the same technique is now being trialed on six Alzheimer's patients. Functioning like a "pacemaker for the brain," the treatment offers hope for the millions worldwide who suffer from the debilitating memory and cognitive losses caused by Alzheimer's. 

The electrodes are connected by a cable that runs under the patient's skin, down the back of the neck to a battery pack implanted in the patient's chest. A constant low-level current stimulates the brain tissue, but is otherwise imperceptible to the patient.

The devices are the same as those already being used successfully as a treatment for Parkinson's disease, severe depression, and even chronic pain; all that varies is the exact segment of the brain where implantation occurs. In Parkinson's, for instance, the subthalamic nucleus is stimulated. Depression targets a small area of the cingulate cortex.

"This gives us new insight into which brain structures are involved in memory", says Professor Lozano.

More news of Lozano's research is expected to be announced later today to Canadian media.

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RE: Borg
By jbartabas on 1/30/2008 12:02:58 PM , Rating: 4
I guess that forgetting about some things is a natural function that permit us to focus on what's important (hopefully, although 'important' is a rather subjective notion that everyone tunes to his own interests ;-) ).

If my brain is to become a huge mess of insignificant memories that requires me hours of 'processing' before finding a relevant information, I guess I'd prefer to pay the price of forgetting where I've put my keys ... :-P

Nonetheless, it sounds really like a fantastic news all the people who have serious brain dysfunctions. :-D

RE: Borg
By winterspan on 1/30/2008 4:34:44 PM , Rating: 3
That always is the explanation when they study savants with incredible memory capacities. They say the normal "processing filter" for extracting only the "important" information is dysfunctional and/or missing in these individuals. That makes it appear that you have had to be in such a state DURING the memory formation to have similar abilities. What is truly amazing about the phenomenon in this article is that the patient had extraordinarily vivid recall of past events which occurred prior to the implantation of the deep brain stimulation (DBS) unit.
That bodes well for those of us already born that hope for some type of enhancement in the future. You may not need to go back and re-read/re-learn everything that you wish to have an incredible recall of.
Less narcissistic, the potential to help Alzheimers patients with their memory and cognitive abilities will be wonderful. I currently have a grandparent suffering terribly from that miserable disease...

RE: Borg
By nayy on 1/31/2008 5:51:39 PM , Rating: 2
Surely so much memory would be difficult to handle, but the beauty of this is that you can turn it on and off at anytime!!
Need to remember something? press your memory boost button, once you recall what you needed just release the button.
It's a dream come true, if it proves to be safe in the long term.

RE: Borg
By murphyslabrat on 2/1/2008 3:43:33 PM , Rating: 3
The downside is that you might forget to switch it back on.

RE: Borg
By mcturkey on 2/6/2008 9:19:59 PM , Rating: 2
It's the "safe in the long term" part that is probably going to prevent this from being much more than an Alzheimer's treatment I suspect. I'd be highly surprised if regularly delivering a current to part of the brain would really be safe, but I guess we're going to find out. I think what is really amazing is that our brains actually retain EVERYTHING and so the stuff we "remember" is merely what we have trained our brains to pull up immediately. In the event that this pans out, can you imagine the potential for future learning? The entire K12 curriculum could be taught in a year or two.

"There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere." -- Isaac Asimov

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